Braham still standard

Posted: 3 p.m.

The Bengals sojourn for a center could lead them right back to their own roster, where five reside, where two are heading into their third year in the system, and where they may decide they don't have to dip into the higher end of the draft.

And where at least one of them has been watching the gold standard ever since the Bengals took him out of Notre Dame in the seventh round of the 2007 draft.

"They gave me a tape of Richie from '04 and '05 the first summer I went home," says Dan Santucci. "I heard he knew the offense really well, he was a great communicator, people followed him, he was a tough guy, played hard."

Rich Braham's standard rises higher and higher the longer it takes to replace the man whose career was cut short by a knee injury in the second week of the 2006 season. With Eric Ghiaciuc moving on in free agency, the Bengals have only one center that has snapped in the NFL and Andrew Crummey did it in the final series of a game last season.

No question that the lack of experience at the spot has the team concerned and the draft isn't going to solve that. But some of the options rattling around the cupboard have offensive line coach Paul Alexander saying the club may not have to take a center with one of its 11 draft picks.

"That's why we felt we could let Eric explore his options," Alexander says. "We felt we had guys here that could replace him."

With no indication that Ghiaciuc is coming back, the 6-4, 304-pound Santucci and 6-3, 306-pound Kyle Cook are the most experienced in Alexander's scheme as third-year players who spent most of last season on injured reserve.

The 6-5, 300-pound Crummey arrived off the street last Oct. 21 as a rookie when the club signed him off the Redskins practice squad and played mostly on special teams in the last six games.

Evan Mathis, a 6-5, 310-pound third-round pick of the Panthers in 2005, started 15 games at right guard in '06 before the Panthers and Dolphins released him last year and he hooked on with the Bengals on Nov. 24. He has spent his career practicing at center and tackle.

The fifth center, Digger Bujnoch, never played the position during his decorated career at the University of Cincinnati.

Which puts the spotlight on Santucci and Cook, two guys out of the '07 class that have the Bengals wondering if it's worth it to take a run at the '09ers.

Santucci never played a game of center after starting every game at guard his final two seasons in South Bend, but his smarts enabled him to pick it up quickly that first training camp.

Cook didn't get drafted out of Michigan State after starting his last 35 games, but the Vikings almost paid him like he did with a $20,000 bonus that Cook  says was the second highest among the college free-agent class. The Bengals think that since Cook played his senior year on a sprained ankle, it hid some of his athleticism in the scouting process.

The Vikes released him in the final cuts and Cook got the reunion with Alexander when the Bengals picked him up three days later and put him on the practice squad for the remainder of his rookie season. Alexander has known Cook since he was 16 from Alexander's Midwest Linemen's camp he runs every summer.

Last year in preseason when Santucci suffered an ankle sprain, Cook played well enough in the games that he graded out as well as Ghiaciuc. But when the club was on the verge of putting him in games, he dislocated his toe in Dallas during warmups.

"The last play," Cook says. "Those last four plays before we go in and on the last one I bumped Whit (left guard Andrew Whitworth) just a little bit like you always do and it must have been at just the right angle. They taped it up and I played special teams, but the next week there was just too much pain."

Cook and Santucci had the classic contrasting Midwest upbringings on their way to big-time college programs. Santucci grew up on the fringes of Chicago in Harwood Heights and says, "You walk across the street and you're in the city." Cook grew up in Macomb, Mich., two miles from his nearest neighbor. Extrapolate the differences a little more and Cook's beard offsets Santucci's blond buzz cut.

Progress has come in Cook's lifetime (a Kroger is across the street), but that doesn't mean they paved the work ethic. His father, Tom Cook, is a middle school teacher who has a drywall/construction company on the side and is also a volunteer fireman and constable. As a kid, Cook went along with his family to help work on their friends' dairy farm. From milking cows, baling hay, to hanging drywall, Cook is used to an honest day's work.

"Nobody gives you anything," Cook says. "Especially in this league. I'm not going to say anything stupid. I'm going to try and win the job. I think I've done two things that have helped me: Change my body type and learn the system."

The roster has Cook at 306 pounds, but Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko remembers his Spartans teammate at 285.

"A very competitive guy and a tough guy," Peko says. "He's bigger now, but he's always been athletic. On a lot of our runs he was right out there in front."

Any Bengals center has to be able to handle the monster 3-4 nose tackles in the AFC North (Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton, Baltimore's Haloti Ngata, Cleveland's Shaun Rogers) and Cook thinks he and Santucci have the background to be prepared for the task of trying to handle them head up.

"(Santucci) faced the same kind of guys at Notre Dame that I did," Cook says. "We faced big guys like Alan Branch and Gabe Watson at Michigan. They were just two of them."

A center's main requirement is brains, and Cook and Santucci have them. They also have to have the ability to communicate what they know and both have good personalities for it.

"I feel like I can do what is asked there; to be able to make calls," Santucci says. "It should be easy for me now. I need to just get experience out there.  I don't have the natural smarts.  I have to work at it. I study and watch tape."

Assistant offensive line coach Bob Surace can speak to being a center and smart, since he did both at Princeton.

"One of the big things about the position is being able to have the personality to communicate," Surace says. "Cook has a take-charge personality and Santucci made great strides in that between his first and second year. All the guys we have there are smart guys. They just need the experience."

The Bengals centers are going to get plenty of that now. At least some of them. But if you haven't heard from them by now, don't expect to hear from them even if they do get that shot. Cook and Santucci are smart enough to know no one wants to hear from guys that don't have a spot yet.

"There's nothing for me to say," Santucci says, echoing Cook. "I'm trying to do three things and that's it; work hard, study hard, win the job. That's all I'm trying to do."

Which, come to think of it, is how Braham set the standard.

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